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Working Magic: Paintless Dent Repair (PDR)

PDR is only as good as the operator on the other end of the pry tool.

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Mark R. Clark is owner of Professional PBE Systems in Waterloo, Iowa. He’s a popular industry speaker and consultant and is celebrating his 32nd year as a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

Just as body- and paint-work quality can vary
with the technician doing the job, paintless dent repair (PDR)
is only as good as the operator on the other end of the pry tool.
To be sure your tech is performing PDR as if he waved a magic
wand, check out the following tips.

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Making Magic

PDR is possible today because of the superior
quality of late-model paint finishes. Years ago, two things made
PDR unlikely: First was the thickness of the car body, and the
other was the flexibility of the paint finish. When we started
downsizing cars to get better gas mileage, we started making panels
from lighter-gauge sheet steel with the same tensile strength
as heavier metal. This lighter-gauge high-strength steel (H.S.S.)
or high-strength low-alloy (H.S.L.A.) first started appearing
on unicoupe cars in the mid-1980s.

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The paint finish itself didn’t become resilient
enough until the late 1980s and early ’90s. The newer the vehicle,
the more likely the paint will move back to contour without breaking;
the older the paint finish, the longer UV rays have chewed up
the resin and made the finish brittle. Paint finishes get better
each year, and it’s likely that newer finishes will withstand
even more flexing and bending without cracking.

The Trick

How exactly is PDR performed? The first step
is to clean the damaged panel so the dent can be examined carefully
from the top side.

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If the paint cracked when the dent was made
or the dent is in the 1-inch border around most panels where the
metal is rolled over or double thick, PDR won’t work. Cracked
paint, of course, requires priming and painting to repair. Dents
in the very edges of panels or those on a sharply creased styling
line generally cannot be repaired, although the most practiced
and accomplished PDR technicians can sometimes work wonders with
a sharply creased dent; most often, though, the metal is stretched
beyond a paintless repair.

Having cleaned the panel and examined the
dent, the next step is to shine a bright light at the panel to
get a reflection of the area surrounding the dent. By carefully
watching the reflection of the light on the panel, the tech can
bring the dent exactly up to contour and not overpush the dent.
This skill is a matter of training your eyes to see the edges
and the exact center of the dent. Just like most people in the
autobody industry can spot a paint flaw much faster than the average
citizen, a PDR tech can see the metal move much better than someone
with an untrained eye.

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Most PDR lights are 4-foot fluorescents mounted
on a stand that enables them to spin around to any angle, casting
the most light on the damaged area. If 110-volt current isn’t
available, you can use a reflector board to catch the sunlight
or a 12-volt light powered off the vehicle battery. In any case,
you want a straight-edge reflection across the dent.

The major hurdle in any PDR job is access
to the back side. You can access the area by drilling holes through
existing bracing, but this runs contrary to I-CAR’s recommendation
that you should not drill holes in late-model vehicles. (I-CAR
says that rust is nine times more likely when the factory corrosion
protection is breached.)

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To avoid drilling holes, most PDR tools are
shaped to enable the technician to reach the dent by going through
an existing access. This, they say, is what separates the men
from the boys. It doesn’t take very long for a new PDR tech to
move the dent up and out of the hood or deck lid if no bracing
blocks the rear of the dent. However, if the access hole is far
back beneath some brace, it takes a talented tech to reach the
tool down the inside of the brace, twist the tool and still have
enough control to slowly ease the dent out.

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Once access is gained, the dent is pushed
around and up with the very tip of the dent-removal tool. Many
new techs cover the end of the tool with tape, which allows a
greater margin for error when moving the metal.

The trick, they tell me, is patience. Unlike
a body man’s pick that moves metal visibly each time the dent
is picked up from underneath, PDR may not visibly move the metal
each time the tool is applied to the area surrounding the dent.
Instead, PDR slowly reforms the metal to its original shape. Using
the dent tool to rub gently in a circular motion, it sometimes
takes 15 to 30 minutes to remove the dent.

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If you overpush the dent, most systems offer
a plastic punch with a flat end that allows you to tap the crown
back down to flush. (The goal, of course, is not to push the dent
past contour in the first place. Flexed down into the dent and
flexed back up above contour is a lot to ask of a paint job, and
a stress crack may result.)

The Secrets of Success

We all come from an industry that pays you
to go faster. If the book (flat-rate) time for a particular metal
operation says five hours, we all want it done in less time –
that’s how we make money. I’ve tried PDR myself, and I understand
the principle – rub the point of the tool on and around the dent
with a gentle pressure upward. All you have to do, they told me,
was keep up that gentle pressure for 10 minutes. I wasn’t more
than 60 seconds into it when I thought, "Hey, if I push just
a little harder, I can get it done in five minutes!" Wrong.

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Many PDR instructors tell you they have better
results when they train people who have no preconceived notion
about how metal work is done because these folks don’t know it
isn’t supposed to take 30 minutes of gentle pressure to remove
the dent. Where an existing body man shines is in locating access
to the panels.

So what’s the key to PDR success? Practice,
practice, practice. This repair process (some PDR systems offer
50 or 60 different-shaped metal-working tools) is indeed an art
form. Just like the first time you painted a car or ran the welder,
PDR takes skills you don’t possess without practice. One PDR tool
manufacturer calculates that it takes three months of everyday
practice to successfully remove the average door ding or hail
dent and that it takes 12 months of everyday practice to remove
a sharp crease or light collision damage.

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That, folks, is a lot of practice. What the
tech learns in practicing is the feel of the metal, how much flex
is possible, how much pressure is enough, which way to work up
the dent, etc. – all the things you can’t see in a video tape
or read in a manual.

Who Works the Magic?

Most PDR work today is done at wholesale by
used-car dealers at auto auctions. They’re looking to have the
panels of the used cars cleaned up for a minimum cost and with
minimum down time. Rather than sand and repaint a panel with four
or five door dings – which ties the car up for a couple days –
they’re looking for someone who will get the car ready for sale
now. That’s where you come in.

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Retail PDR is untapped in most markets, except
those localities that have had a recent hail storm. In fact, PDR’s
suitability for repairing typical hail dents is the reason for
most of the growth in the industry. If you’ve been in an area
that had a large hail storm, you’ve seen entire herds of PDR shops
setting up in every abandoned gas station and fruit stand around
town. After a few weeks of fixing hail-damaged cars for less than
the collision-shop’s estimate, many of the less-reputable PDR
guys fold up their tents and slip away into the night.

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In some areas, insurance companies are writing
PDR estimates. However, it’s just as hard for an adjuster to judge
the suitability of PDR on a dent he can’t see from the rear as
it is to see collision damage over the phone.

Abracadabra

Like making a coin appear from behind someone’s
ear, PDR isn’t really magic. It’s simply fine metal work on a
surface painted with a very flexible finish. It may also be a
profit center for your body shop.

The popularity of PDR is likely to grow as
big superstore used-car lots spring up around the country. And,
as consumers hear about the repair process, they’re more likely
to get a PDR estimate in addition to the conventional repair estimate
from your shop. PDR is a process several techs in your shop could
do successfully – once you get them to slow down long enough to
properly work a dent back up to contour. All it takes is practice,
practice … and more practice.

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Mark Clark, owner of Clark Supply, Inc., in
Waterloo, Iowa, is a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

No Magic Potion

Not all dents are fixable with PDR. Metal-working tools will remove
most uncreased dents, but the area will need to be painted in
the body shop if the paint cracks.

Several PDR-tool manufacturers calculate that 85 to 95 percent
of fixable dents are accessible from the rear. The other dents
are of a size and shape that PDR could cure, but they can’t be
reached from the rear – meaning they have to be repaired conventionally.
What comprises a repairable dent also varies according to the
skill of the technician.

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An Old Trick

Around since the 1930s, PDR is popular with today’s car manufacturers,
which have a "ding man" working every production shift.
Whether the new-car body is painted or not, manufacturers still
want to get the little dings and dents removed quickly so the
car can continue down the assembly line. Years ago in our industry,
this kind of metal work was called "pick and file,"
a process by which the damage was "picked" up from behind
and the high spots were metal-filed flat. Today’s new automotive
paint finishes are so flexible that the paint won’t crack as the
divot is pushed up to contour, making paintless repair possible.

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